If it’s fast, greasy and cheap, you’ve probably seen it served at a residential college buttery, the student-operated eateries that specialize in fulfilling late-night cravings. Consider the Memphis Walk, a staple of the Ezra Stiles College buttery: It’s a plate of french fries, covered in melted cheese and topped with buffalo chicken.
But a recent investigation revealed that when it comes to butteries, students may have to worry about more than calories.
When representatives from Yale Dining toured many of Yale’s 12 residential college butteries last spring, they were distressed by the relaxed sanitation standards kept by the student workers. Although Dining has no formal involvement with the butteries, which are overseen by residential college masters’ offices, Dining administrators undertook the tour to assess what kind of late-night food options were available to students. They discovered that not only were student workers ignoring the regulations expected of Connecticut food establishments, but also in most cases buttery employees did not know what those regulations entailed.
A BUTT TOUR
Director of Residential Dining Regenia Phillips said that in addition to violations of less-obvious sanitation rules, such as the stipulation that food be stored at least 18 inches above the floor, she discovered — and photographed — particularly egregious health risks, including raw chicken being stored directly above fresh produce.
“[There’s a risk that] juice kind of drips down, and they would then serve that pre-cooked lettuce or not wash it thoroughly enough,” Phillips said. “Students would have salmonella, and sometimes they don’t know where they’ve even gotten it from.”
After her tour last spring, Phillips brought her slide show of photos, along with an offer to provide buttery workers with training in proper sanitation habits, to a meeting of the Council of Masters. The meeting, former Council of Masters chairwoman Judith Krauss said, was “eye-opening.”
Although Dining e-mailed residential colleges this summer, volunteering to train buttery workers, only one group of staffers — those in Pierson College’s buttery — has met with a dining hall manager. Berkeley College buttery manager Katherine Woodfield ’10 said Berkeley Master Marvin Chun had told her of Dining’s plans to help the buttery, but workers in eight other butteries said they were unaware that Yale Dining intended to reach out to them.
While Phillips underscored that Yale Dining has no official need to oversee the sanitation practices of butteries, she remained hopeful that they could be of some use in the future.
“We’re the experts in food and handling,” Phillips said. “And we want to make sure they get the training so we don’t have kids getting sick.”
When Alice Walton ’10 reported for duty on her first night at the Pierson College “Butt” during her freshman year, she quickly realized the basement eatery was more like her kitchen at home than the industrial kitchen in which she had worked the summer before. Though the staff performed routine cleaning at the end of every shift, wiping down counters, washing dishes and taking out garbage, she was unimpressed.
“I ended up having to make sure we had hand sanitizer,” she said as she prepared two quesadillas Sunday night, “because for the first year I worked, I had to keep asking for it every time I washed my hands.”
The buttery finally acquired a new supply of sponges two years ago, she said, adding that she was “surprised” no one reported falling ill from buttery food on her watch.
In a series of inspections undertaken by News reporters, many of the butteries’ sanitation practices appeared to conform to the Connecticut Public Health Code’s myriad rules, which include the temperature at which raw meat should be cooked (145 degrees Fahrenheit) and the way garbage should be disposed. But at least eight of the butteries did not keep food thermometers on hand. One residential college, Davenport, refrigerated perishable food at 50 degrees Fahrenheit — five degrees above the maximum food storage temperature prescribed by the health code.
Despite the potential hazards of eating at the butteries, said buttery patron Santa Correa ’12, “it’s not that different from having your friends cook you something at their house.”
But Jocelyn Traina ’10 said that when working in the Trumbull and Saybrook butteries this summer, she and her co-workers found mouse and rat droppings “everywhere.”
“It was nasty,” Traina said.
Although the Connecticut Department of Public Health stipulates that “any place where food or beverages are served to the public” must conform to a rigid set of health codes, Yale’s campus butteries have so far remained exempt from inspections because they are “informal arrangements” between students, said Paul Kowalski, environmental health director for the New Haven Health Department, adding that butteries are not required to buy health licenses because they “fall into a gray area.”
The question of whether butteries qualify as food establishments under Connecticut law last arose several years ago, he said, when administrators asked him to ensure that butteries in newly renovated colleges would have adequate appliances and equipment.
“You would hope they would follow health code standards,” Kowalski said of the late-night eateries, “but from an official standpoint, we wouldn’t get involved with students cooking for other students unless there are really terrible conditions.”
Kowalski said his office may casually check the butteries again this year, but unless any students have fallen sick from eating buttery food, the basement kitchens will likely remain undisturbed.
BAKING ON A BUDGET
The increased scrutiny of butteries’ sanitation practices has also drawn attention to their budgets.
Phillips said Yale Dining volunteered to purchase food for the butteries through their own food suppliers. The measure would save buttery managers a trip to Costco or Sam’s Club, and perhaps more importantly, they could take advantage of the significant discounts offered to Dining, which buys food in considerably larger amounts than individual butteries.
The savings come just as residential college budget cutbacks begin to bring accountability to the college basement eateries. Although a few colleges already operated on budgets, some operated on a blank check system.
“Well, we’re on a budget now, which we weren’t before,” Nava Rafati ’11, the Saybrook “Squiche” manager, said when asked whether the budget had changed this year.
Davenport College’s buttery now works with Carolyn Haller, the college’s new operations manager, to make sure it keeps costs down. (Each residential college hired an operations manager last year as part of a campuswide initiative seeking to increase accountability and tighten college budgets.) While Davenport buttery cooks are unpaid, some colleges with a salaried staff have had to cut back on items offered. Branford’s buttery will no longer serve mozzarella sticks and will offer fewer types of french fries because they have not been as popular this year, Ryan Carter ’11, the Branford College buttery manager, said. Meanwhile, Calhoun College has stopped buying tomatoes.
“We’re being held a lot more accountable,” Cole Sickler ’10, one of Davenport’s buttery managers, said. “It used to be Davenport gave us money for everything.”
Phillips said she felt that any lapse in health code compliance was not due to a lack of negligence, but rather a lack of training regarding sanitation standards.
Student buttery managers typically ask their employees to use common sense when it comes to maintaining cleanliness, without ever requiring their workers to undergo formal training. The amount of training required of new cooks varied from college to college, many buttery managers said, though no college required its workers to attend any orientation or training conducted by a food industry expert. The amount of training expected varied from 30 minutes of observation to one night of job shadowing.
“You just learn from other people. It’s very hands-on,” Carter said. “It’s not that hard to learn because all the food is already cooked.”
Phillips said Yale Dining hoped to bring sanitation standards into focus for buttery staff by reaching out to each residential college master’s office. Dining hall managers for each residential college were asked to train buttery workers to follow basic health code rules and make sure they have adequate kitchen equipment, she said.
Walton said the Pierson dining hall manager had already paid a visit this fall to point out specific rules that buttery managers should keep in mind, and he provided them with a food thermometer.
Still, Walton added, dining areas as intimate as a college buttery — where students often watch their peers prepare food — have their own system of oversight.
“If you do something gross, you’re going to be called out on it,” she said.